Weekend Trip from Irkutsk
Part of the SRAS cultural package
for spring, 2017
Bolshoe Goloustnoe (Большое Голоустное) is a very small town approximately two hours outside Irkutsk by car. It’s right on Lake Baikal—as in, you can wake up, leave your hotel, and walk directly onto the lake. (Or into the lake, if it’s not winter.)
I did just that my first morning in Bolshoe Goloustnoe—breakfast wasn’t ready yet, so I walked onto the frozen lake and just stood there for a while, looking at the tiny Orthodox church a few meters off, the mountains in the distance, and the lake stretching out forever and ever. It had snowed in the night, so I cleared a patch of ice to look through, hoping to see a nerpa (seal) face looking back at me, but it seemed empty. I lay down on the ice for a few minutes, taking in the Baikal air and the silence. It’s a good way to start a day.
The main (and I think only) attraction in this town is Lake Baikal, but it’s quite an attraction. Our coordinator had a bunch of local connections, so we were able to go ice fishing (no one caught anything, but we all enjoyed peering down into the depths of the lake, past the meters of ice) and then make ukha (уха, a traditional Russian fish soup) and drink samogon (самогон, a Russian home-brew) right next to the lake. (If you do go ice fishing, insist on taking part in the local tradition of having a shot of berry liqueur right there on the ice. Several of us missed out!) Our host made the soup over a bonfire outside, and when it was done, he stuck the end of one of the pieces of firewood right into the soup; it gave it a smoky, surprising taste.
Later, we hiked up a small mountain/large hill and got a panorama of the town and lake, and then spent some time wandering on a different patch of ice. It may not sound interesting, but somehow the ice of Lake Baikal constantly changes colors, and it’s endlessly fascinating and mysterious. You feel like you’re on a different planet.
The next day, we had a trip over the ice to Sandy Bay (Бухта Песчаная), well known in particular for its trees whose roots have slowly become visible as the sand falls away. We were driving over the ice for three or four hours on the way there, stopping to look at the ice, jump around, climb a giant rock. (We also had to get out of the car several times so it could drive over giant crevices—our driver would rev up the engine and drive over at full speed, I guess to decrease the likelihood of falling through the ice.)
The beach itself is lovely, of course, with its alien-like trees, but it’s the journey there that’s really extraordinary—being on the middle of the lake with absolutely nothing visible in any direction except ice, mountains, and more ice.
Bolshoe Goloustnoe is everything I imagined when I thought of coming to Siberia (and more; I could never have pictured frozen Lake Baikal as it actually is). It’s definitely, definitely worth a visit.